Finally an ultrasonic record cleaning machine done right!
I was watching a video from Axpona 2018 by Michael Fremer (always enjoy his videos). At one point he was showing some ultrasonic record cleaning machines that were there. It was the usual crowd from the ill-conceived to the “close but no cigar”. Then the last one he showed just stood out from the pack to me. As I watched and listened to the company owner demo and explain I thought, “Hey, I think I’ve just seen the first ultrasonic record cleaning machine done right”! The second I saw the implementation of the record handling, it hit me. I never thought I would see the day that someone not only made an ultrasonic record cleaning machine done right, but also not priced up in the stratosphere someplace! Well, that day has arrived!
When ultrasonic RCMs first came to market, I had been happily using my VPI 16.5 (vacuum RCM) with AIVS fluids for less than a year. I still happily use it and I get very good results most times, but I also have my share of a few records (not many), that I feel could be notably better especially after cleaning a few times with subtle to almost no improvement. When the ultrasonic machines came out though many folks were quick to jump on the praise wagon without a second thought and claim that they were the greatest things in the world and unless you were using one, your records were not clean. Of course, these machines were around $4000 to $5000, which left me wondering, “not only is that a ludicrous price for such a thing, especially of one had less than 3000 records, but intuition and some horse sense told me to take a closer look at these machines”.
Ultrasonic cleaning has been around for a long time, but for things like eyeglasses, jewelry, medical instruments of course, etc; not so much for records until just a few years ago. I started researching these ultrasonic record cleaning machines and took note of the transducers power, temperature, the way the records are handled and the effects of cavitation cleaning itself. Cavitation is a science, so one must pay attention to certain things such as I listed, including tank capacity and number of items cleaning at one time to name a couple more.
I was also able to find some notes from university science and engineering departments who were also looking into cleaning records by cavitation. What I found concerned me. Knowing how records are made and what they are made of I determined that the transducers used in the machines available at the time were too strong (40 kHz to 42 kHz). This is strong enough combined with heat, to leach the plasticisers from the record, not good. On top of that, the suggested temperatures and inability of the heating units to regulate and maintain anything below 100 degrees pretty much guaranteed unwanted results as far as I was concerned. Sure, it will lower the noise floor temporally, but a year or so later the noise will be back permanently because by removing too much of the plasticisers, the record will turn brittle, basically becoming a piece of plumbing and unplayable. (To safely and effectively clean records ultrasonically, the transducers should be 35 kHz and the temperature should not be more than 95 degrees). This is part of the re-engineering Kirmuss audio did to offer this machine. They ordered the base unit with 35kHz transducers (each one is tested by the way) and then replaced the heater with one designed to maintain not over 95 degrees and invented to record holding apparatus to fit over the tank and handle your records safely. Finally, they also made it so that everything meets the most stringent safety regulations for both the US and Canada.
I have also seen some of these expensive machines in action and noted flaws in design. One machine, for example, which was “only” around $1700 to $1800 for the base model that comes with an “air drying rack” (really a wooden dish rack), was demoed for me and used what I call a rotisserie spit to hold the records, up to 8 at a time. (That right there was enough to raise concern for me).
1) Why would I want to use a spit and clean 8 records at a time in a tank that barely had room for 8 records? (Doing so creates standing waves effectively reducing cleaning ability). In addition, not only can you not mix sizes of records to be cleaned simultaneously, but more importantly, you could damage the spindle holes. Here’s why: Records on a spit are under their own weight, that’s not a big deal. The problem though is that the rotisserie spit designed machines usually have heaters unable to keep things below 100 degrees and in fact encourage folks to use the heaters. The action of cavitation also raises the temperature of the surface of the water. Those heat waves rise well above the tops of the records, so now you have added heat lending to make the record softer thus possibly enlarging the spindle hole rendering it too big and in least case adding what is known as “wow” when playing back. Worst case is being unplayable in that the stylus jumps all over the place due to violent off center rotation of the record. This is unlikely to occur in a 5 minute window, but these machines often require you run the record for a minimum of 10 minutes to 15 minutes and that is enough time to increase the potential of spindle hole deformation exponentially.
2) Air drying: Why would I want to clean your records and then place them in a rack for 30 minutes to air dry so every manner of contaminant could fall back on the record and into the grooves, especially while still wet?
After the maker ran some records through the cycle I noticed little black specs at the bottom of the tank. The maker said that is part of the dirt from inside the grooves. My mind told me that is little bits of record (insignificant or otherwise) floating around down there and that it was dirt. Granted, the records in demo had been in the machine for hours, so that will wreck havoc. The ultrasonic machine itself had a transducer rate of 40 kHz and a starting temp of 100 degrees. Both too aggressive for records in combination. On top of that, think about putting more records into the bath with bits floating around. All they do is become projectiles. I thought to myself, $1800 for that? (Continued on next page)